Dana Priest on National Security and Intelligence

Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Associate Editor
Thursday, October 2, 2008; 12:30 PM

Washington Post associate editor Karen DeYoung was online Thursday, Oct. 2 at 12:30 p.m. ET to discuss the latest developments in Iraq, Afghanistan and national security.

The transcript follows.

Dana Priest covers intelligence and wrote " The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace With America's Military" (W.W. Norton). The book chronicles the increasing frequency with which the military is called upon to solve political and economic problems.

Archive: Dana Priest discussion transcripts

____________________ Post associate editor Karen DeYoung will be filling in for Dana Priest this week. Here are some of her recent articles:

Pakistan Picks New Chief For Intelligence Agency (Post, Sept. 30)

Unease Grows as N. Korea Asks to Remove IAEA Seals From Reactor (Post, Sept. 23)


New York: Karen, is there any reason to believe that the Iraq Awakening will disintegrate now that it's been turned over to the Iraqi government? Thanks for the chat.

Karen DeYoung: Greetings. I'm subbing again for Dana -- where is she, anyway? Will try my best with intel questions, without pretending to know more than I do. I'll start with an easy one more in my own lane.

There are all kinds of reasons to worry that the Iraq Awakening, Sons of Iraq or whatever you want to call them will be a problem. These are the largely Sunni fighters who changed allegiance from the insurgency to supporting the U.S. -- in exchange for a U.S.-paid salary and an open door to guard their own neighborhoods as part of the counterinsurgency effort. The original idea was that they eventually would become part of the Iraqi government's security forces, but the Shiite-dominated government has balked. After much U.S. prodding and pressure, the government this week took over the salaries of 54,000 of what are close to 100,000 "Awakening" forces. Relatively few of them will go into the security forces; instead, the government is to find jobs for them or put them in job-training programs. They are worried that they will not get jobs, they will not get paid, and the Shiites will get rid of them more permanently. The fear is that if their needs are not met, they might go back to their insurgent ways.


Towson, Md.: Is it fair to say that the Pakistanis and the U.S. are playing a PR game with border incursions and "angry" public denouncements? What is the real agreement between the two countries, and am I naive to believe that honesty is always the best policy? Regarding Afghanistan, can you tell us how much this war costs per month, and what percentage of that is shared by our NATO allies?

Karen DeYoung: There is some suspicion that the Pakistanis secretly agreed to U.S. incursions and finds it necessary to publicly denounce them for domestic consumption. I think it's more complicated than that. The Americans certainly have told the Pakistanis that action needs to be taken now against border-based militants, and that it will go after targets as it confirms them. Pakistanis said they didn't like it and didn't agree to it. It's not clear, however, what they can and will do about it. Of the nearly $1 trillion approved by Congress for Iraq/Afghanistan since September of 2001, about 20 percent has gone to Afghanistan. NATO pays for its own troops, which are slightly less than half of those in Afghanistan.


New York: Karen, do you think Colin Powell will have a role/position of some sort in an Obama administration? I don't get the impression that he is among McCain's advisers, nor has he publicly endorsed anyone.

Karen DeYoung: I always seem to get a Powell question, which I'm glad of, but I don't have any new answers. Powell considers McCain a friends, although he's not happy about some of his domestic policy positions (especially the Supreme Court). He is also -- until further notice, at least -- a registered Republican. He has spoken to both campaigns in the past, considers himself an adviser to neither, and still says he hasn't decided whom to vote for.


Toronto: Do you sense in your discussions with national security officials a sense of angst from allies regarding the absence of congressional support for measures to deal with the U.S. credit implosion? Do those same national security officials believe that a hostile power will use the current U.S. domestic distraction to challenge the U.S. in a sensitive part of the world?

Karen DeYoung: Angst is worldwide, exacerbated by what has happened this week. Perhaps our monitors can post recent Post stories about what the Europeans and others have said/done about the U.S. crisis.


Washington: I wondered if you'd ever looked into foreign heads of state giving gifts to administration officials; a foreign leader is said to be building a residence in South Africa for a current State Department operative.

Karen DeYoung: All such gifts are supposed to be declared; most don't get kept. I don't know anything about what you mention in South Africa but would like to ... here is my e-mail.


Washington: From an international perspective, have you heard of any concerns or views regarding how other countries see a McCain/Palin administration versus an Obama/Biden administration? While I keep hearing how concerned we are about Gov. Palin (in light of what she's shown to date and concerns about McCain's age/health), I would think that our friends, allies and others would have concerns as well.

Karen DeYoung: BBC has done a lot of polling on this. Most recently (in September) they reported that all 22 countries where polling was done preferred Obama to McCain, by a four-to-one margin on average. That ranged from a 9 percent Obama preference in India to 82 percent in Kenya. The most common view expressed was that if Obama were elected, U.S. relations with the rest of the world would improve, while under McCain they would stay the same. Countries most optimistic about Obama improvement were NATO allies and Africans. One caveat -- significant numbers in several countries said they didn't favor either candidate.


Juneau, Alaska: Hi Karen. What is the worst-case situation in North Korea with them taking the seals off the reactor? How long before they could start producing, how much could they generate? I am very interested in learning more about that kind of stuff. Thanks for your work.

Karen DeYoung: Hello Juneau -- are you tuning in to vice presidential debate tonight? On North Korea, Pyongyang has indicated it could begin reprocessing within a week of getting facilities up and running.


Washington: What about that item in The Post that Maliki said that they switched the withdrawal date from 2010 to 2011 in the negotiations in order to accommodate the Bush administration's domestic political considerations, i.e. helping John McCain by not agreeing to what looks exactly like Obama's plan? Big deal?

Karen DeYoung: I wouldn't read too much domestic politics into that. The U.S. wanted no date, while Maliki had said publicly that he wanted 2010. 2011 was the compromise reached in heated (and ongoing) negotiations.


Sun Prairie, Wis.: Ms. DeYoung: Good afternoon. With Gen. McKiernan and many others expressing alarm about the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, are you hearing anything about American dissatisfaction with Afghan President Karzai? As I understand it, he became president in the first place because he comes from a prominent family of the Pashtun ethnic group, the largest in Pakistan, and was anti-Taliban. His fluency in English probably didn't hurt either. But he has been president for a while without showing any capacity to fight corruption or get the Afghan government to deliver services -- in short, he has looked ineffectual as head of government. Is this opinion widely shared in American military and diplomatic circles?

Karen DeYoung: While they like Karzai personally, U.S. officials are pretty unanimous in thinking he is a less-than-forceful leader, to put it mildly. Elections are scheduled for next year; Karzai says he will run. Nobody has put forward a better idea.


Fairfax, Va.: I recall reading somewhere that when President Bush took over, President Clinton listed what he considered to be the top five international concerns he had. If you were President Bush and talking to your successor, which five would you list?

Karen DeYoung: Pakistan/Afghanistan, Pakistan/Afghanistan, Pakistan/Afghanistan, the global economy, North Korea and the Middle East.


Colin Powell: After what has happened in Iraq, how is it possible that Powell can be considered anything but a has-been? He was played and disgraced by the Bush Administration, made a fool by Cheney and Rumsfeld, and this is supposed to be the beaux ideal of strong leadership? He was equally weak when he left Clinton alone to fight the "don't ask don't tell" policy, and he let Somalia get out of hand while he was preparing to leave, again leaving Clinton with a mess. He supposedly swore he never again would let the military be destroyed in a pointless war, and he's allowed that to happen. He should have resigned, but lacked the guts. I don't see the attraction -- it's media image over substance. Obama should stay far away.

Karen DeYoung: A not-uncommon view, although Powell retains amazing popularity and respect among many.


Wokingham, U.K.: The topic is out of season, but I'm still interested in the implications of the Georgia campaign for the world military balance. I've read reports that Georgia's Western-supplied weaponry proved its superiority to the clumsy Russki stuff, and presumably the point of all the supplying and training by American, British and Israeli agencies was to make the campaign so prolonged and so costly to the Russians in blood, treasure and reputation that they would suffer a strategic defeat. But the Georgian army ran away. Are we seeing a moment when sheer bloody numbers are beginning to mean more than the prowess of highly trained and equipped elites (a bit like 1918, when the wonderful German storm troopers just couldn't hold the Western Front against the huge Allied mass)?

Karen DeYoung: The Georgians were overwhelmed on every level -- including equipment and personnel.


Berkeley, Calif.: In the past, Froomkin has cited numerous authorities noting that al-Qaeda in Iraq and the original al-Qaeda are not and never have been connected by anything other than name. Why haven't the majority of the media driven home this key fact? Also, why hasn't more been made of the fact that while the surge helped reduce some of recent violence, it arguably has not helped the push for political reconciliation?

Karen DeYoung: From this end, it seems like we've written endlessly about that subject through the years, always noting that the group called al-Qaeda in Iraq is largely Iraqi, that there was no al-Qaeda there before 2003, that there has been little evidence of an organic connection between them, etc., etc.


Princeton, N.J.: Peter W. Galbraith has a very good article entitled "Is This a 'Victory'?" in the New York Review of Books. In it he makes two points I have been trying to make in this chat for several months. First, nobody knows what McCain and Bush mean by "victory," and whatever it is, this ain't it. The "progress" that has been made is a millimeter thick; the real problems of Iraq have not begun to be solved.

Galbraith sticks to political and geopolitical problems -- no economic ones. He is somewhat weak on Kurdish expansionism and oddly enough does not mention the 5 million refugees, but he is excellent on the Shia-Sunni, intra-Shiite and intra-Sunni conflicts, including some I had not heard about. It seems the Sunni politicians are afraid of the Baathists who are running the Awakening. What do you think? Is This a 'Victory'? (New York Review of Books, Oct. 23 issue)

Karen DeYoung: I haven't read it, but that sounds about right.


Southwest Nebraska: How critical are the ethnic differences in Afghanistan? Has the Taliban had more success with any particular group over another?

Karen DeYoung: The Taliban are Pashtuns ... the largest Afghan ethnic group, mostly in the south and east of the country, spanning the "border," such as it is, into Pakistan. There are many other groups in Afghanistan. Gen. McKiernan, the U.S. commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan, made an interesting point in a press conference here yesterday. Asked whether an Iraq-style "surge" would work in Afghanistan, he said no, and specifically mentioned that an "Awakening" -- in which U.S. forces empowered ethnic groups to perform security functions -- could very well lead to civil war there.


New York: Karen, how worried should we be about North Korea someday providing nukes to terrorists?

Karen DeYoung: The bigger worry, I think, is that they will return to doing deals with other governments (showing them how to do it and providing components, rather than actual weapons) that we consider both unstable and unfriendly -- some of which have close ties to terrorist groups.


Clayton, N.M.: What is the function/use of Patriot missiles in Iraq?

Karen DeYoung: Call me stupid, but I was unaware of Patriot missiles in Iraq ... I have heard nothing since they were used against Iraqis in first Gulf War. Anybody else know anything about this?


Princeton, N.J.: Has all of what is now Afghanistan ever had a stable government?

Karen DeYoung: Afghanistan has always been a conglomeration of distinct tribal and ethnic groups brought together, sort of, at various times in the past, under a monarchy or in opposition to foreign interlopers.


Virginia Beach, Va.: I may not be remembering this correctly, but one of the arguments for the surge was that the increase in soldiers would be temporary and that the numbers would go down after the goals were met. Aren't the numbers still above pre-surge numbers, and will remain so through next summer? If the surge was as successful as McCain, etc., keep saying, why are the numbers still high?

Karen DeYoung: Yes, troop numbers are still above the pre-surge levels, although that is likely to come down with withdrawals tentatively scheduled for early next year.


Summit, N.J.: Ms. Priest, I am very grateful for your reporting on the problems facing injured soldiers at Walter Reed and elsewhere. Could you suggest ways for me to find a worthy organization that helps U.S. soldiers injured in Iraq? I suspect you might not want to recommend a specific nonprofit, but are there any Web sites where I can find suggestions? Or perhaps you have given this information already and I missed it. I am deeply opposed to the war in Iraq, but I am sure that there are many people like me who would like to help the men and women who fought there and were injured. Thank you very much for all your great reporting.

Karen DeYoung: Dana just appeared from wherever she was (she has the office next door to me). She suggests your local National Guard, the IAVA (Iraq-Afghanistan Veterans Association) or Disabled American Veterans.


Lancaster, Pa.: After watching last Friday's debate, I was struck by the fact that "victory in Iraq" frequently was commented on. My question is, what will determine "victory"? When a week passes by without a terrorist attack? When the government fully takes the reins? When they "ask" us to leave?

Karen DeYoung: I refer to the reader to previous questioner's mention of Galbraith's article. In general, the definition of "victory" has changed though the years. In the beginning, it was a peaceful, multiethnic, strong Iraqi democracy, with a steady supply of oil to the international markets -- a strong U.S. ally that was unfriendly to Iran. These days, it's a relatively low level of violence, a government that can protect its borders and sustain itself without being overthrown or too abusive toward its citizens, that can provide a modicum of services to the population ... and that isn't too friendly to Iran.


Washington: As this is turning into a Powell chat, how much of his troubles were because he just was not as savvy a bureaucratic player as Cheney and Rumsfeld, along with not having the closest relationship with Bush himself, as opposed being caused by his own mistakes?

Karen DeYoung: I think he was unequipped and unwilling to adjust to new rules, under the Bush administration, of the bureaucratic game he had mastered in the past.


Have U.S. credibility and respect levels ever been lower: Than during this past six to eight years? And has our capacity to respond to threats ever been more impotent in terms of moral persuasion and authority? I for one cannot wait for the Bush-Cheney administration to high-tail it out of town -- preferably tarred, feathered and on a rail. How long will it take for history to really know the damage these thugs and frat boys have done?

Karen DeYoung: To look at it another way, I think much of the world is uncomfortable with raw relations with the United States and will be looking for a way to repair them. The Bush administration already has taken some steps in this direction, although it's credibility is low. Overall, there U.S. influence doubtless has decreased, owing not only to differences with the administration but also to a lot of other global trends.


Helena, Mont.: Civil war in Afghanistan -- well, you could say that our "invasion" really was on one side of the Civil War that was going strong between Taliban and Northern Alliance. We just used the Northern Alliance as our infantry for awhile. Not necessarily a bad plan, but the underlying reasons for civil war have not been addressed, and until they are -- and the Afghans see a future without war -- it's going to be a morass.

Karen DeYoung: True enough.


Ashburn, Va.: I used to think that Vladimir Putin and the Russian Government in general were trying to bridge a perilous gap to becoming a true democracy -- dealing with internal struggles such as organized crime/etc. Now it seems that Putin's and Russia's actions in general certainly dictate otherwise. If given a crystal ball, where do you see Russian-American relations heading? Also, our proposal to put a missile defense system in Poland -- is that somewhat akin to Russia's perspective on the Cuban Missile Crisis for us?

Karen DeYoung: Both the United States and Russia recognize it's in the interests of neither to be enemies. But they've also realized that they're not going to be best friends. I think they'll continue to irritate each other, while stopping short of a serious breach. The Russians, like the United States in the Western Hemisphere, see themselves with a sphere of interest in the countries that surround them and certainly see the placement of elements of a missile defense system in Russia and the Czech Republic as a direct challenge to that.


Arlington, Va.: The U.S. position on Kosovo has been a failure form the start. Kosovo never will get into the U.N. over Russia's objection, and the country effectively is divided along ethnic lines, with the U.N. Mission in Kosovo watching over the Serb areas and the EU watching the Albanian parts. Has either presidential candidate said anything about a new approach or a rethinking of our efforts around Kosovo?

Karen DeYoung: With so many other things blowing up, neither candidate has said much about Kosovo. Secretary of State Gates is headed there next week, so perhaps they'll feel the need to reveal themselves.

I see my time is up. Thanks, as always, for many good questions, and stay tuned.


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